The Russia House -- love story or post-Cold War spy story?
THE RUSSIA HOUSE
Directed by Fred Schepisi.
Starring Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Klaus Maria Brandauer.
At Loews Copley Place.
By PRABHAT MEHTA
OF THE WINTER FILMS I've seen so far, the one which most remains with me is The Russia House, an adaptation of the 1988 John le Carr'e spy novel. This, unlike a Kindergarten Cop or Home Alone, is a film of subtleties. It is intelligent and rich, with a powerful sense of time and place.
Indeed, time and place may be the most important attributes to this film, which covers the espionage business in the age of glasnost. It is pleasantly ironic that actor Sean Connery -- perhaps still better known as master spy "Bond, James Bond" -- returns to us as the novice spook Barley Blair.
Blair is a second-rate man, not the shining star required for hard-core, high-risk intelligence operations. He is a washed-up British publisher whose favorite pastime is getting drunk in Portugal. But little does he know that some of his drunken rhetoric has inspired a top Soviet scientist to save his nation by betraying it.
Through intermediary Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer), Blair is to confirm the authenticity of a set of notebooks with detailed accounts of Soviet technological weakness. The notebooks were written by a dissident Soviet scientist who took to heart some of Blair's semi-mindless ramblings (sometimes, Blair says to an attentive group of Soviets, to save your country, you must betray it). The scientist, code-named Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer), hopes Blair will publish the notebooks, which would then conceivably promote nuclear disarmament.
However, the notebooks never reach Blair. Instead, British intelligence and ultimately the Central Intelligence Agency acquire the documents, and decide to ask Blair to go to the Soviet Union and find out the identity of the as-yet-anonymous author. Their only lead is Katya, who gave the notebooks to one of Blair's publishing colleagues at a book fair in Moscow (after Blair failed to show up).
Conceivably, the scene is set at this point for an action-thriller. But screenwriter Tom Stoppard and director Fred Schepisi focus not so much on the intricacies of the spy racket as on the increasingly anachronistic attitudes of the Western intelligence officers and the relationship which blossoms between Blair and Katya.
An ethereal quality -- characterized by washed-out scenes of grey skies, quiet rides through the Russian countryside, and a gentle background of jazz -- further undermines the importance of the espionage plot. The heaviness typically associated with films of this genre has been lifted -- the Iron Curtain is gone.
What has returned in its place is hope -- expressed most resonantly in Pfeiffer's character. Her blossoming is powerful enough to bring meaning for the first time in Blair's waning life. The espionage plot, in the end, becomes a backdrop for Katya and Blair's love story. The myriad characters associated with the British secret service and the CIA become almost comical with their concerns over the Soviet threat to Western freedom. The Soviet Union we see in this movie is a humble beast, crumbling beneath 70-plus years of its own heavy-handedness.
Remarkably, in poking fun at the intelligence community, the film does not attempt a pretentious left-liberal political message. There is instead a simple honesty to the comical depiction of an entire profession suddenly rendered irrelevant by its own relentless dedication over the past 40 years.
If there is any political message, it is that glasnost has done some good. It has given a sense of renewal to the Soviet people, a new hope. And by doing so, it has given new hope to the world. At the same time, the film also reminds us that while the reforms in the Soviet Union have unleashed powerful voices, little action has been taken to restore real political and economic freedom. Goods are in short supply, and fear remains. But the war of ideas is clearly over, and love is no longer merely an escape from brutal reality but an end to achieve in itself.